11 Unusual Methods for Being a Great Public Speaker

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Prakash Panangaden taught me everything about public speaking. The first thing he taught me when we were in Kaiserslautern, Germany, for my “fascinating” talk titled “A Mechanically Assisted Proof in Category Theory” was ‘never go to the porn shops here. They will rip you off.’ I was 22 and Kaiserslautern was the worst city I had ever been to in my entire life.

In a 24 hour period, I was chased by a lunatic, accused of stealing at the hotel I was staying at, kicked out of a bar for reasons I still can’t understand, and warned by my professor/mentor not to go to any porn stores or I would be ripped off. Being 22, I promptly ignored him. Part of the reason I was later chased and perhaps also accused of stealing but that’s another story.

I was very very nervous about public speaking to these people (the name of the conference is so boring I can’t even repeat it). For one thing, its impossible to make esoteric math like “Category Theory” funny.

(a slide from my talk tomorrow)

So when the conference was having their big banquet and awards ceremony, Prakash (my mentor at the time and co-author on the article I was presenting) took me to the speaking hall. He said, “you are hopeless. We have to skip the party or you are going to be an embarrassment to me.”

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We were the only ones in the speaking hall while everyone was in the banquet.

He said, let me see your slides. I showed him. He said, “these are all awful” and he quickly rewrote all of them and explained why he was rewriting each one. Then he sat in the back of the hall and had me stand on the podium. He said, “give the talk.”

For every slide, he went over and over it again. “You have to have a joke or something that surprises on each slide.” He would have me walk to different parts of the podium for different slides. Or move my hands a certain way to make a point. He went over every nuance with me. He taught me how to tell a joke and wait for the laugh. If nobody laughs “Tell people, ‘you were supposed to laugh at that’ even if it’s not funny. And then they will.”

I horribly disappointed him when I was thrown out of graduate school less than a year later and he hasn’t spoken to me since. (more on why I got thrown out in “How I Torture Women”)

The next day I gave the talk and I was very happy – people laughed at my jokes. A woman came up to me afterwards and said, “I had no idea Category Theory could be so funny.” Prakash even said to me, “you were a natural, they can’t teach that.” And I know he was just being nice but it was the highest praise.

A colleague of ours, sitting next to Prakash during my talk whispered to him during the talk, “why didn’t James even ask for my help on this.” Prakash turned to him and said, “because he hates you.” From Prakash I learned a particular brand of honesty.

So I have to give a talk Thursday and on June 13 so I’ve been thinking of these items.

Here’s my 11 unusual tips on being a better public speaker:

1) Start off with a joke. This is a must. People need to laugh within the first 30 seconds or else you’re going back to your cubicle at the pencil factory and they will never remember you.

I spend about at least one to two hours before the talk coming up with the first joke because I know that’s what starts off the good feelings for the rest of the talk. I usually make it relevant to the locale and the topic or the news (Tomorrow’s joke starts off: “True story: two days ago I was having dinner with the prime minister of Pakistan and…”) And it actually will be a true story.

2) Get on their level. This has two meanings. I once fell off of a podium while pacing around giving a talk. I was very embarrassed. So now I always get off the podium and explain that I’m afraid to fall off so I’m just going to walk around if that’s ok with everyone. People laugh a little bit and it physically and mentally brings me onto their level.

3) Very important: I very very slightly slur my words. A very small slur. I don’t drink at all. But by slightly slurring my words it’s as if I’m telling my brain I’m a little drunk. When you’re a little drunk you don’t really care what people think of you and you take a few more chances than you would’ve otherwise. It also makes me a bit more brutally honest. And everyone likes a nice drunk!

4) I try to use JUST one word plus one image per page. No more! You think people really want to come to a talk and read a novel? They want to look at funny pictures. At heart, we are all two year olds trying to just stay alive. I’m not saying this in a patronizing way. Its just true.

Here’s one slide from my upcoming talk: